Education has been a co-operative principle from the days of the Rochdale Pioneers to modern times, says Bruno Roelants, director general of the International Co-operative Alliance.
A keynote speaker at the Co-operative College’s Centenary Conference, Mr Roelants said education had appeared in the first list of the practices of the Rochdale pioneers, which later became the seven co-operative principles. The principles have been revised over the years, but education has remained a constant principle.
The importance of co-operative education is also mentioned in the International Labour Organization’s Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Co-operatives, which argues that measures should be adopted to promote the potential of co-operatives in all countries, irrespective of their level of development, “in order to assist them and their membership to develop human resource capacities and knowledge of the values, advantages and benefits of the co-operative movement through education and training”.
Adopted earlier this year, the ILO Declaration on the Future of Work also places a strong emphasis on the importance of education and ensuring that education and training systems are responsive to labour market needs. The ILO pledges to support the role of co-operatives and the social and solidarity economy, in order to generate decent work, productive employment and improved living standards for all.
Mr Roelants said more data is needed on co-operatives around the world and encouraged the sector to explore its contribution to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The ICA’s strategic plan, approved at its General Assembly in Kigali in October, includes measures to address from multidisciplinary viewpoint the exclusion of co-operatives and the co-operative identity from education systems at all levels around the world.
“Co-ops are a fundamental matter to teach at schools and universities,” said Mr Roelants.
In countries like Canada, co-operatives are already on the agenda of educational institutions. Sonja Novkovic professor of economics and academic director of the International Centre for Co-operative Management at Saint Mary’s University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, talked about the main academic institutions in the country, which run various courses and degrees on co-operatives.
These include undergraduate, postgraduate and research degrees, including an MBA with a specialisation in co-ops. Sobey Business School at Saint Mary’s runs in-person, short courses as well as online, part-time postgraduate programmes.
“The impact is life-changing,” said Prof Novkovic. “This exposure gives people the confidence that the co-op model is a better way of doing business.”
She believes the challenge for educators is to “take the torch and run away with it” rather than wait for the world to change. “Universities are corporate-funded and co-ops need to get in there with funds … it’s the only way universities will listen,” she added.
Dr Cilla Ross, vice principal of the Co-operative College, who steps up to the role of principal this month, highlighted some of the organisation’s key initiatives around developing co-operators, building co-operative capacity, advancing co-op policy and progressing global co-operation.
She said the College had a different approach to teaching and learning, to counter an increasingly narrow focus around the world on what education means.
Changing legislation has enabled the college to start developing a co-operative university, she said.
“I’m excited about the future of work although it’s precarious,” said Dr Ross, adding that are opportunities for co-ops.
An alumnus of the College, Prof Esther Gicheru, said her current organisation, Co-operative Education of Kenya offers certificates, degrees, diplomas and postgraduate courses to 6,000 students. The university dates back to 1952, when it was set up as school of co-operation, and later became. It works closely with local co-ops and credit unions to translate ideas into action and provide short-term programmes for the movement.
Prof Gicheru said the university is now looking at developing a joint platform for co-ops to share research and to drive collaborative research projects between educational institutions and the co-operative movement.
Another partner of the College, insurance federation Climbs, provides training to 4,000 member co-operatives in the Philippines – a country with 14,000 co-ops. Since 2011 they have trained 3,000 leaders of co-ops.
Delegates also heard from Professor Mohamed Maie, founder and CEO of Malaq Laye Co-op Technical Institute in Somalia, who described some of the challenges faced by the co-operative movement in his country.
In February a team from the College delivered an executive education programme in partnership with Climbs’ Institute for Financial Literacy. A delegation from Climbs attended the College’s Centenary Conference as part of a package including a one-day certified executive masterclass.
Somalia’s civil war, which has been continuing since 1991, has affected the country’s industry and for many years the country lacked a permanent central government. Fishing, transport and agricultural co-ops survived the conflict but all other industries had disappeared, explained Prof Maie, whose institute helps these co-ops access training. He says Somalia’s first co-operative university is now being set up.
Asked how co-operatives could change the economy, Prof Novkovic told delegates to “do what they can where they are”. “We have examples that work even though they way they work shouldn’t work. You have to be able to say – that’s not how we do things,” she added.
Dr Ross added that the education system in England is “rooted in the 19th century” and “not fit for purpose”.
“We must constantly think how we embed learning in our everyday lives. We need to remind ourselves that new ways of learning are ways of moving forward,” she said.